Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tombstone Tuesday - Perseverance PAYS!

Subtitle: Success in the Cemetery!

I'm posting today to share my excitement about a victory (of sorts) that I've had.  I thought that this was going to be more of a follow-up post, however, upon searching my blog, I've discovered that I never did write about the search for my maternal grandmother's grave marker.

My mother's mother, Mary Thomas, died in 1986.  She was buried in Calvary Cemetery, an historical burial ground in Norfolk, Virginia.  Because I spent the first 14 years of my genealogical journey completely focused on researching my paternal ancestors, it wasn't until just a few years ago, when I turned my attention to my mother's folks, that I decided to head over to Norfolk to visit my grandmother's grave.  Once I did, I was disappointed to discover that the spot where she rested was covered only by green grass, and wasn't marked in any way.
I was 24 years old when my grandmother died, and of course, I attended her funeral.  However, not being a cemetery or genealogy buff at the time, I can't say that I paid any attention to how the grave was marked.  But, what I did know (or at least what I thought) was that my mother and her two siblings would certainly have put some kind of a marker on their mother's grave.  I inquired at the cemetery office, but long story, short, they had no records related to the markers or headstones.  Their records only pertained to the actual burials.

At the advice of the person in the cemetery office, I contacted Hale Funeral Home, to see if they had any records pertaining to my grandmother's burial.  (I called right from the grounds of the cemetery, hoping to just drive right over!)  Unfortunately (and quite sadly), the person I spoke with told me a story of transferred management after family deaths, and records which had actually been THROWN AWAY.  If I recall correctly, all of the pre-1997 records of this funeral home, which has been serving African-Americans in the Tidewater area for 100 years, were destroyed during changes in management.  Needless to say, I was disappointed, and appalled.  Not only were the records of my own ancestors gone - I actually have several who were serviced by this funeral home - but so were those of hundreds of others. 

After this troubling revelation, it seemed that there would be no way for me to prove that there'd once been a marker at my grandmother's gravesite.  My mother told me that my uncle had handled the burial transactions, and when I asked him about it, he said he no longer had any of the paperwork, but reiterated that he "thought" there was "some kind of stone, or something" at the grave.  With nothing else to go on, I just kind of put this to the side, but vowed to one day get to the bottom of it. (No pun intended.) :)

Anyway, life and genealogy went on, and then one day, quite by accident, I ran across this picture, while going through some things at my mother's house:

My nephew, Robert, and my daughter, Natasha, beside the freshly-covered grave of their great-grandmother,
Mary Thomas.
 So, there ya go!  You'd better believe I was doing the genealogy happy-dance, for here was all the proof I needed (and more)!  As soon as I saw this picture, I knew for sure that this was my grandmother's burial location, because it was the exact spot on which I'd stood with the cemetery caretaker, but all that was there was grass.  But here were my nephew, age 6, and my daughter, age 4 obviously not too long after my grandmother had been buried.

With this picture in hand, I took the 35-minute drive over to Norfolk last Monday, ready for battle.  I called ahead to let them know I was coming, and "Bret", the current manager of the cemetery, after hearing my plight, said he'd pull his records and be ready for me.  Once there, he and another employee in the office were very kind and accommodating towards me, so no fight was necessary. :)  Bret verified the location of my family plot (yes, it's a family plot, but I'll write about that in another post), and printed out a new map for me using their fancy-smancy new program.  Then, off we went, armed with my proof-providing picture to do a "test-dig". 

I couldn't believe how excited I was about this, but I was almost beside myself.  When we got to the plot, I used the picture to help Bret locate the exact spot in which to drive his shovel, and after just a couple of hits in that spot, we heard it - the unmistakeable clang of metal against stone.

Bret marks the spot for the dig.
And so we began...

As Bret chisled and dug, I continued to "coach" him, directionally.  After just a few minutes, I had all of the confirmation I needed.
Do you see what I see?

At this point, tears began to well up in my eyes, as I realized that we had, indeed, found my grandmother.  Of course she was there all along, but there was just something about the grave being unmarked that was very unsettling to me.  Now, I knew for sure that we were in the right spot, and presumably my grandma, along with her husband, her parents, and her uncle were all right there where they'd been laid to rest. 

Bret continued his work, commenting to me, "You were exactly right about it.", as he dug, more gently now, around the step.  In reverence to my ancestors, I remained silent, as he uncovered the unmistakeable match to my photograph.
And there it is, the THOMAS surname, clear as day.

Just a few minutes after the step was completely revealed, as Bret was explaining to me that it would be raised and reset before the end of the week, a truck drove by with the very men who would be doing it. He summons them to stop, and they came over and heard the whole story.  Everyone involved (including Bret) seemed surprised and baffled that the marker had been allowed to sink like that, since the cemetery is well, and consistently cared for, but what happened, happened.  I'm just glad that they were so amicable about it, and willing to do the work (at no cost to my family, of course) to right the situation.  I didn't go back yet, but I'm guessing the work has been done.  I plan to go over this weekend to see.

There was so much more to this post, but, unfortunately, I hit a wrong button last night was I was creating it, and lost all but the very first part.  Time only permits me to redo this much for now, but thank you for reading.  Needless to say, my heart is glad. :)
Thanks for reading.


  1. There are so many other stories contained in this one story! The sad story is that the new company threw away the previous owner's records. I would assume that one would understand that there was a legacy that should have been preserved! But the photo--thank goodness you found it! That stone has been buried for some time!! Thanks for sharing this story!

  2. What an amazing story showcasing your perseverance to reveal what you knew was there. So happy you were able to locate the stone and reveal where your family was buried.

  3. Congrats on finding the headstone. I hate when old records are destroyed, just wish someone in that office had a genealogist's heart.

  4. Thanks, everyone. This really was very rewarding, although a bit disturbing, too. I mean, how many other grave markers have disappeared? How many other burial/funeral records have been destroyed? I guess we'll never really know.


  5. I am so glad you had a good outcome!! We had a similar situation with my grandparents grave in an African American cemetery in the Detroit area. They still have the records but the markers are not to be found and they have zero interest in being at all helpful. I don't understand it. It's really disturbing. Again, I'm HAPPY you had a good outcome and YAY! for photographs!!

  6. Thanks, Kristin. Sorry to hear about your situation in Detroit. Hopefully, they will decide to work with you and be more helpful in the future. (Send them this blog post!) :)


  7. Renate, I'm late of course, but this was a wonderfully touching story. I thinking the ancestors led you to that photograph--without it, you may have never found her. I know your great grandmother was smiling down at you;)

  8. What a beautiful story. I have 2 exact situations that i found last month in NJ. MY gg grandparents has never had a marker. 3 members in an unmrked grave from the 1940's. Questioned family and no knows anything. Second family plot in nother cemetry the ground markers for 5 family markers have been taken over by the ground and grass. NOTHING THERE. Talked to the office and they were snippy and said we have to contact the stone marker company to have the raised. A total nightmare that is about money for them and total heartache for us!